Drones are on the rise

… as demonstrated during the dedicated panel featuring Sal Ciotti from Air Canada and Peter Hewett, Dronamics, at the TIACA Executive Summit on 07NOV23, in Brussels. The development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has reached Phase 2, meaning that their use in regular operations is gaining traction. This applies to Canada-based provider DDC, but not (yet) to Dronamics’ ‘Black Swan’. However, with all flight licenses in place, it should only be a few months before Dronamicss’ first UAV commercial flight is launched.

Drone experts discussing latest developments. Sal Ciotti, Air Canada (far right), flanked by Peter Hewett, Dronamics, and moderator Sam Quinteller of BRU Airport (left)  – picture: CFG/hs

The key question for traditional air freight, is whether drones are competitors to cargo airlines and will capture increasing chunks of their business, or rather partners providing complementary services to common air transportation. The answer from both panelists was unanimous: partners, not competitors.

This is already clear from the areas of operation. In the case of Air Canada, which works together with the Canadian provider Drone Delivery Canada Corp (DDC), drones primarily cover remote areas such as in the Northern Territories along the Arctic Circle. There, the infrastructure for cargo aircraft is often suboptimal, which speaks in favor of the deployment of UAVs. The agreement between the two companies, signed back in 2019 already, stipulates that Air Canada markets and sells DDC’s drone delivery services within the country, using its inhouse marketing and sales platforms and resources. The initial term of the agreement is for 10 years from the effective date of 29MAY19.

Exclusive collaboration
DDC’s services will be marketed as a premium offering, and Air Canada Cargo has agreed that it shall not use or engage with any other drone providers. “We sell the capacity that the DDC drones can carry – an extremely important market and an extension of our current freight business. It gives us access to customers we would not necessarily interact with, and the possibility to open up new markets like airport-to-airport transports or airport-to-market,” explains Sal Ciotti, MD Cargo at Air Canada. The manager went on to say that, from a cost perspective, DDC drone operation is substantially lower compared to other types of air support and even road services. Due to harsh climate conditions and swampy areas, some places in Northern Canada only receive cargo in winter when lakes are frozen and then passable by trucks, which opens up new avenues for UAVs.

Spotters are to monitor the drone ops
Regarding flight permission, the manager said that Air Canada and DDC are closely working with regulators to get the green light to start operations. However, government bodies are very cautious because operating drones raises some critical technical and insurance law issues and related questions. Regulators worry that drones might fall from the sky and injure people. So, they demand that spotters are placed along the flight path to keep an eye on the drone in case something happens. However, once operations run smoothly, this will be overcome and open the market, enabling the establishment of a drone network spanning across Canada, Mr. Ciotti predicts.

First Black Swans will fly in Greece
Over to Europe and Dronamics, whose concept is based on different parameters than those of DDC/Air Canada Cargo. The company produces Black Swan drones, operates them, and markets the capacity in close cooperation with its customers, but on its own. “We obtained an LUC [comparable to an AOC, HS], which allows us to fly within Europe. We run under EASA 947 Drone regulations with OY as our call sign. Although the term ‘drone’ is embarrassing because the Black Swan [which is coated in white, HS] is actually an aircraft operating in controlled airspace,” Peter Hewett, Dronamics’ Director Global Cargo, Security & Network Operations, outlines. In contrast to Air Canada and DDC, regulating bodies do not stipulate positioning spotters along a route to monitor operations. “All they require is a risk assessment for our future operations.” Greece, he emphasizes, is a perfect place to start flying because there are many islands needing to be served. Flying across water minimizes risks and demonstrates to the authorities and customers that the Black Swan is a safe aircraft.

High loads, long range
As we are a small airline, we have postholders talking to airlines today, because we believe we can be an extension of larger carriers, by offering first and last mile services. Q1/24, we will launch live commercial flights,” the manager confirms the self-defined timeframe. All the Black Swan needs is 400 m of firm surface to land on and take-off from.

Compared to the Boeing 737P2F conversions or ATR freighters, the Black Swan is a low-cost aircraft capable of transporting 350 kg over distances of up to 2,500 km at a velocity of 200 km/h. The company intends to start mass production in Australia at a ratio of one drone/week. Once this is achieved, transport prices will come down. By 2030, Dronamics envisages 850 drones in operation. First customers are Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, Sovereign Speed, and the Hellenic Postal Service. The Emirates Post Group (EPG) has signed a Letter of Intent with Dronamics, aimed at exploring transformative solutions in logistics through advanced cargo drone capabilities in the UAE.

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